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How to Be Black Characters

Baratunde Thurston

The first-person narrator of How to Be Black, Baratunde Thurston is an American comedian, writer, and political commentator from Washington, DC. Thurston’s father was killed in a drug trade–related incident when he was five, leaving his mother, Arnita, the single parent of Thurston and his sister, Belinda. Thurston attended the Quaker private school Sidwell Friends, then went on to major in philosophy at Harvard. Although finances were tight for the family while growing up—Thurston could only afford a cable subscription once he graduated college—Thurston had a happy and stable childhood, primarily because of his mother. His progressive political consciousness arose from his mother’s influence, as well as his education at Sidwell and Ankobia, an after-school Afrocentric life skills and cultural program. The name Ankobia, from the Twi language of Ghana, means “those who lead in battle.” One of the most formative events for Thurston at Sidwell was a trip to Senegal in high school. Immersing himself in African culture and visiting the ports from which abducted Africans were forcibly sent to America as part of the slave trade were “humbling” experiences for Thurston, sowing the seeds in him of the need for a pan-African identity. As a comedian and writer, Thurston uses humor to demolish stereotypes about black people and forge a path for the “future of blackness.” Although he has faced subtle racism for much of his life and navigated being a black student in a predominantly white school, a black employee in corporate America, and other such minefields, Thurston states that he is as proud of his American identity as he is of his African ancestry. It is white people who need to understand that owning his African roots and forming bonds with black people does not imply that he is a threat to them.

Arnita Thurston

The mother of Baratunde and Belinda, Arnita was the biggest influence on her children’s life and politics. As an eight-year-old child, Arnita was briefly sent to a “boarding and reform school” for black girls by her strict mother, an experience which traumatized her to an extent. Although her mother wanted Arnita to be an “appropriate,” docile black person who complied with social mores, Arnita grew up to be a questioning woman with a defined political consciousness, participating in the race rights rallies. According to Thurston, although Arnita was more punitive with his older sister, Belinda, perhaps modeling her own harsh upbringing, she relaxed her parenting style by the time Thurston was born in 1977. After Thurston’s father was killed in a “drug war,” Arnita became the sole parent of the household, devoting herself to giving her children a stable upbringing. Thurston notes that disproving the offensive stereotype about black mothers, Arnita was passionate about healthy eating and traveling. Further, Arnita kept her children busy in after-school activities so they would not become involved in the rapidly expanding drug scene in Washington. She also imparted much of her political consciousness and racial pride to her children, ensuring they read up extensively on apartheid, black history, and Africa.

Derrick N. Ashong

Also known as D.N.A, Ashong is a Ghana-born musician who met Thurston at Harvard, where they were both students. Born in Africa and having spent his formative years in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Ashong has experienced interracial relations in various scenarios. Ashong’s perspective is particularly unique in the context of How to Be Black because he speaks about black identity in a context wider than that of North America. Ashong, who is inspired by African cultural traditions and practices, also raises the important point that Africans living in Africa may experience race in a different way than African Americans, who live in a white-dominated culture.

damali ayo

damali ayo, who prefers her name in lowercase, is an American comic, artist, and writer, and...

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